8 Bulletproof Strategies to Defeat Creative Blocks Once and for All

Creative work is emotionally exhausting. So what’s a creative person to do?

(Photo: Joshua Earle/Unsplash)
(Photo: Joshua Earle/Unsplash)

The fear haunting all creatives is the same: the switch flips, and suddenly you’re not able to produce high value work. It’s the moment when you know you could produce something, but nothing comes out of the faucet. It is—possibly second to death, but maybe more than it—the worst fear for people living a creative life.

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In his essential book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield explains that writer’s block stems from “resistance.” To Pressfield, resistance is the story you tell yourself which pacifies you into not doing your art. Resistance could be self-loathing, procrastination, chronic distraction, poor habits, or justification for pursuing other aims. Resistance often plagues people for decades, keeping them from their life’s most important work. The regretful sentiments—“I wish I had…” and “If only…”—are all too common.

According to Pressfield, in order to “do the work” you should avoid resistance at all costs. But is he right? Seth Godin argues resistance is to be embraced and pursued. How can that be? For Godin, feeling resistance is a sign that you are on the verge of creating something important. To Godin, embracing resistance is the first step to creating your most vulnerable and important art.

Whether you consider resistance a friend or foe, one thing is indisputable: Creative work is emotionally exhausting. It’s easy to avoid and even fear it, to arrange your apartment, clean your kitchen, polish your shoes…basically do anything other than the work you know needs to be done.

So what’s a creative person to do? Try the following eight strategies, which if applied consistently and honestly, could bring about your best work. Let me go one step further: These tactics could turn your relationship with resistance around, Let me be clear, if you do these things, you will rarely, if ever, experience creative blocks.

  1. Throw Your Goals Away And Replace Them With A Bucket List

Most creatives are goal-oriented, but goals, which can at times inspire us to great action, can also bore us and make creating art feel like a job. What’s more, goals can often be misdirected. It’s all-too-easy to obsess over getting things done and forget the reason you’re doing it. Goals can create tunnel-vision in which you mistake the means for the end.

A bucket list, on the other hand, is something created with thoughtful intent. What do I really want to do with my life? Thus, the bucket list provides meaningful context for your goals, putting them against the backdrop of a full life.

Duncan Penn, Jonnie Penn, Ben Nemtin, and Dave Lingwood dropped out of college in 2007 to pursue their list of 100 things to do before they die. This list includes such items as playing basketball with Barack Obama, starting in their own TV show, writing a bestselling book, kissing Rachel McAdams, smashing a guitar on stage, buying someone’s groceries, and going to outer space. Although they haven’t completed all the items on their list, they have completed most; and in the meantime inspired millions of others to pursue what they want to do before they die.

While “goals” carry with them the weight of deadlines and efficiency, “bucket lists” conjure up feelings of an epic quest. Your bucket list becomes the various missions take make up your life’s choose-your-own-adventure story.

I consider myself radically goal-oriented. My goals are the wake up screen on my phone, I habitually reference them, and spend ten minutes a day writing them over again in my journal. However, as I compared my goals to my bucket list, I was profoundly troubled. What am I really trying to accomplish here? Why did my bucket list keep getting pushed back in favor of goals?

Now, instead of pursuing my goals, I’m on a journey to accomplish the things I feel define my mission here on earth. Specifically, I’m now chasing items on my bucket list. For instance, instead of simply exercising five times per week, I’m now training to be on American Ninja Warrior. Instead of writing three articles per week, I’m striving to get featured on my favorite outlets. Although subtle, this shift in mindset allows you to focus more on quality over quantity.

When you reframe your goals into the broader context of a bucket list, you will find deeper meaning and fun in your art. You’ll take bigger risks in your creative projects because you’re attempting something you feel must happen before you die. Your work will be more personal and vulnerable. Indeed, people are motivated far more by purpose than by projected outcomes.

  1. Work On Multiple Project Types

According to neuroscience research, novelty activates specific brain systems, foremost among them the dopamine system which makes you feel happy. So, when you perform the same routine every day, your work can get stale, prompting—often frequent—creative blocks. The novelty disappears. Consequently, working on multiple projects is an effective way to experience novelty in your art, and thus, an enhanced flood of dopamine.

Multiple projects not only make you happier, but research finds multitasking can boost creative output, if done the right way. Doing one activity for an extended period of time is less effective for creative output than switching back and forth between creative tasks. However, switching back and forth between a creative task and a passive one (such as eating, talking, reading, or watching something) generates the largest creative outputs.

The mind can get stuck circling the same cognitive pathways over and over. When working on a single problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions. Yet, when you step away from the activity, your mind releases from the fixation and the old pathways fade from your memory. In the meantime, new possibilities are incubated subconsciously—leading to ah-ha moments.

In light of this, I’ve been varying my creative projects. Aside from my PhD research, I’m developing online courses and doing journalistic writing (like this). I’m also creatively invested in my family and church. My time away from each project is essential to the completion of them all. When I return to a certain project, I see it with fresh eyes and take the current draft to a higher level. My best work is never accomplished in a single burst.

  1. Design Triggers For Aggressive and Emotional Creative Bursts

Triggers set off memory tapes or flashbacks transporting you back to an emotionally significant event or series of repeated events. A trigger can be associated with any of the five senses, smell being the strongest. For example, a smell can trigger detailed memories of your grandmother; a song can trigger feelings of being back in high school; a location can trigger intense addiction cravings.

We all have triggers, many of which are completely subconscious. However, triggers can also be consciously designed in the form of pre-performance routines. For instance, Michael Phelps had a routine he did religiously before each swimming event involving music. He’s not alone. Many athletes use music before events to trigger relaxation from the pressure and even to psych them up.

When asked by Time Magazine about his use of music prior to races, Phelps said it kept him focused and helped him “tune everything out, and take one step at a time.” When asked about the kind of music he listens to, he answered, “I listen to hip hop and rap.” Interestingly, research has found that high tempo music like hip hop can create strong arousal and performance readiness. Other evidence finds the intensity of the emotional response can linger long after the music has stopped. So, while Phelps is in the water swimming, he’s still hyped from his hip hop.

You can create triggers for literally anything. Lately, I’ve purposefully crafted a trigger for our three foster kids when we read scriptures in the morning. Just before we sit down to read, I play a song called, Scripture Power, which the kids love. This song gets them excited and in a good mood. Now, they associate the song with actually sitting down and reading scriptures as a family. What was once an arduous and distracted activity is now thrilling and engaging.

I’ve also developed a pre-performance routine for my writing. I’ve found intensive physical activity—particularly yard work—opens huge wells of inspiration for me. I go outside to work for a few minutes and have to run back in to jot down all the insights I’m having.

According to Steven Kotler, there are 17 triggers activating flow:

  • Elevated risk (i.e., the stakes are high)
  • A rich environment (is a combination novelty, unpredictability, and complexity)
  • Deep embodiment (i.e., activating all bodily senses during activity)
  • Clearly defined objectives
  • Immediate feedback
  • Intensely focused attention for long periods of time
  • When the challenge/skill ratio is right (i.e., you’re challenged but not over-challenged)
  • Social concentration when collaborating with others
  • Shared, clear objectives
  • Good communication (i.e., lots of immediate feedback)
  • Equal participation when collaborating with others
  • An element of some form of risk (physical, emotional, whatever)
  • Familiarity with collaborators such as having shared language and knowledge base
  • Blending egos, which is a form of humility wherein no one in the group is hogging the spotlight
  • A sense of control which combines autonomy and competence
  • “Always say yes,” to create additive rather than argumentative conversations
  • Creativity, which is a combination of recognition (the brain’s ability to link new ideas together) and risk-taking (the courage to bring those new ideas into the world)

So, if you’re getting creative blocks, try developing triggers getting you into flow. The more emotional the trigger, the more vulnerable and powerful your art will be.

  1. Spend 5 Minutes Creating Outlines In Advance (This Will Save You Hours)

In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown explains a method he uses to save time and enhance creativity. Hours, or even days, before jumping into a creative activity, he spends just 3-4 minutes creating an outline. Once the outline is built, he walks away from it. When he starts into his project, the outline triggers a flood of information getting him quickly into the zone; rather than having to mentally generate all the information he needs from scratch.

I too use this method in my writing. I design writing sessions for the sole purpose of creating outlines. With a pile of outlines already structured, I can often return and write several articles in a single session. Without the outlines, I can often lose motivation and focus after just one.

I’ve even used this approach in outlining the contents of entire books. I take a blank sheet of paper and write all the chapters that would be in a book. With that framework in place, I can brain dump and get a solid first draft in no time.

  1. Quit Taking Short-Term Gains For Long-Term Losses

When others (boss, friends, and acquaintances) know of your creativity, opportunities will begin to flow. Sadly, many people say, “Yes” to projects they have no intrinsic interest in. Either they are too afraid to say, “No”, or take any project offered them often assuming any opportunity is a good opportunity.

I’ve taken on project after project offered by my research advisers that I had no genuine interest in because I feared responding, “No”. It’s a short-term win (the good feelings of saying “Yes”) for a long-term loss (feeling resentful or frustrated in addition to being distracted from what really matters to you).

The short-term win just isn’t worth it. Don’t take gigs just because they’re available. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that most opportunities—even once in a lifetime opportunities—are a waste of time. These “great opportunities” are additional forms of what Pressfield calls “resistance.”

Have the dignity and the courage to turn down anything you don’t truly want to do. Be willing to take the short-term loss in order to achieve the long-term vision.

  1. Be Uncomfortably Vulnerable and Truthful

If you’re getting blocked up in your work, chances are you’re skipping rocks on the surface. When you dig deep into what you really want to convey, creative outputs become more organic and less forced.The challenge, of course, is that being vulnerable and truthful is scary. It’s easier to hide behind mediocre work than to publish something you feel strongly about.

However, the more vulnerable and shameless you are with your art, the more creative bursts you will experience. When you are shameless, you stop worrying about what the masses will think of your product. Everyone outside your intended audience is irrelevant. As your focus shifts away from your own ego and onto the people you’re trying to serve, your creativity will emerge from a genuine and authentic place. Your work will be about them…from a deep part of you.

  1. Take Long Breaks Away From Your Art

Since the early 1980’s, Bill Gates has gone into seclusion for two, one-week “Think Weeks” each year. His family, friends, and Microsoft employees are banned from these retreats. Gates spends the majority of his time reading and thinking. Many insights and innovations at Microsoft are the fruits of these Think Weeks.

Similarly, every seven years, designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York studio for a yearlong sabbatical to rejuvenate and refresh his creative outlook. In his captivating Ted Talk, he explains the massive overflow of innovative projects were inspired during his time in Bali.

Bill Gates and Stefan Sagmeister are only two among thousands (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg) who rely on sabbaticals for creativity.

In his landmark book, The 4-hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss proposes what he terms, “mini-retirements,” which are a detox from your routine lasting at least four weeks but preferably three months or longer. “You want a complete removal from your day to day routine and day to day reactions,” Ferriss says. “One of the main purposes of a mini-retirement is acting as a reset button.”

Sometimes it takes someone else to point out when you need that kind of respite and renewal. At a time when I was working harder than ever before, my wife decided we needed a break. Per her suggestion, we spent a few months farming on two organic farms in remote parts of Ireland. If you want fewer creative blocks, abandon your routine for a time and get some fresh air. I’ll admit: the first month of detox was painful, but the second was life-changing. Get away, and you could find yourself coming back more creative you were when you left.

  1. Orient Your Life Toward Outputs Rather Than Inputs

For most Americans, the first thing our morning eyes see is a digital screen…usually texts or emails. In spare seconds, we check newsfeeds and tweets. We’re addicted to input. Or in other words, we’re addicted to reactively being guided by other people’s agendas.Instead of living a consciously organized life, we relentlessly react.

On the other hand, Josh Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, wakes up and immediately writes in his journal for 30 minutes. He does this to process what his subconscious mind has been brewing, scheming, problem-solving, and learning in the night. When Josh wakes up, he rushes to a quiet place and engages in a burst of intellectual and creative flow.

Similarly, while Greg McKeown was writing Essentialism, he wrote from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., during which time he didn’t check his email, social media, or phone. He didn’t even receive interruptions from his family until his workday was finished.

Creatives focus on outputs. In their free moments, creatives utilize their subconscious breakthroughs. Their days are filled with creative bursts, making them incredible at their craft. If you want to have more creative flow in your life, stop compulsively checking your social media and email. Check them once or twice per day. Detach from the addiction to numb your mind and escape reality. Instead, get lost in the creative projects you’ve always wanted to do.

Benjamin Hardy is the foster parent of three children and the author of Slipstream Time Hacking. He’s pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational psychology. To learn more about Mr. Hardy, visit www.benjaminhardy.com or connect with him on Twitter.

8 Bulletproof Strategies to Defeat Creative Blocks Once and for All